Zines: A Brief History

Printed matters

After Martin Luther furiously (supposedly) hammered his 95 Theses to a local church door in the 16th century, chroniclers of history saw his act as plenty of things: a righteous rally against Catholic excess, a call to arms for renewed values, a firing shot for one ripper of a Reformation.

Others, though, saw it as the world’s first zine.

The zine — that unruly riff on the glossy magazine, often handmade and always self-published — has long been associated with revolution. DIY dabblers and political thought guerrillas, superfan scenesters and couriers of counterculture have all found a home in the humble zine.

Maybe that’s because a zine’s proposition — permission self-granted, gates unkept — is a boon companion to those who operate outside of the mainstream. Or maybe it’s just because they’re a lot of fun to make.

In any case, these exuberant little publications have something big to say: Small presses, indeed, can turn over heavy pages of history. Let’s rifle through them.

Brief history

Illustration: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

1517: Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the front door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, mobilizing the Protestant Reformation.

1876: Thomas Edison files the first U.S. patent for a machine that duplicates handwritten documents and drawings. Later marketed as the mimeograph, this proto-photocopier will become the printer of choice for zinemakers still a century away.

1930: Science fiction superfans take to making self-published booklets known as fanzines. The Comet, believed to be the first of the genre, drops its debut issue in Chicago streets.

1949: The Xerox Corporation introduces the first xerographic copier. Xerox soon becomes a verb.

1970: Copy shops arrive across the United States, along with their services for mass-printing pages on the cheap. Fanzines, by now shortened to zines, explode as a published form.

1970-1980: Inspired by the avant gardes of the 1920s and 30s, visual artists begin creating zines for mail art networks. Among them, Chicano gay liberation crusader Joey Terrill writes the Spanish-peppered Homeboy Beautiful, and Hollywood glitter rocker-turned-performance artist Robert Lambert distributes copies of Egozine.

1975-1990: Punk groups latch on to zines, recognizing them as an extension of their raucous underground art. DIY shows don’t just include a band’s music — they also include a band’s zines, which are passed around the crowd.

1987-2000: Queer and feminist revolutionaries start to distribute their own zines packed with personal narratives and subversive politics.

1990-2024: Zines are picked up by other subcultures: visual critics, ramshackle poets, and cut-and-paste crafters alike begin publishing their own pages.


“It would be delusional to think anyone could be comprehensive on a history of zines.” Art historian Drew Sawyer, co-curator of “Copy Machine Manifestos,” the Brooklyn Museum’s 2023 exhibition on the rise and influence of artist-made zines. Sorry, Drew!

Read this!

Image for article titled Zines: Scan and release

Illustration: DC Public Library

“Bikini Kill is more than just a band or a zine or an idea, it’s a part of the revolution. The revolution is about going to the playground with your best girlfriends. You are hanging upside down on the bars and all the blood is rushing to your head.”

Flip through the first issue of Bikini Kill, written by members of the Riot Grrrl band of the same name, to see how zinemakers collaged personal artifacts into political manifestos. Inside, song lyrics, cut-and-paste photos, and hand-scrawled accounts get glued down together in a work of renegade bricolage.

Fun fact!

The Internet Archive houses a digital collection of more than 70,000 zines, with works dating back to at least 1925.

You’ve got mail

One important stop in the history of zine-making? Mailboxes.

Back in the 1970s, art groups began experimenting with zines inside a new form known as correspondence art. The premise was simple: Pass your work around with just a postage stamp. Artists began making and mailing off zines to each other, usually with the expectation of feedback, notes, or a piece in return.

“One thing that zines have always represented is a certain type of intimacy — of distribution, of self-revelation, of reception,” Copy Machine Manifestos curator Branden Joseph told Artnet in 2023. “I think that’s one of the things that continues now.”

Fair share

Image for article titled Zines: Scan and release

Illustration: Index Art Book Fair, Mexico City

As zines have grown alike, so have gatherings dedicated to showing them off. Meet the zine festival: the IRL event for a DIY art form. Among the cities where you can stop by one:

📍 Vienna, Austria. At Fanzineist, attendees can move on from artbook stacks to live performances by the likes of electropop DJs and local drag queens.

📍 Dakar, Senegal. Over on the nation’s western coast, the African Art Book Fair places its publications beside Dak’Art, a major contemporary art biennial.

📍 Takasaki, Japan. Zine exhibition ZINPHONY (pronounced like symphony) calls zinemaking a way for people “to express things that are hidden inside them, just like musicians play their instruments.”

📍 Guadalajara, Mexico. The Index Art Book Fair styles its promotions after risographs, which pay homage to the humble photocopier.

📍 Auckland, New Zealand. Each year, the Auckland Zinefest recognizes The Best of the Fest, which awards notable submissions. Among last year’s winners: a folio starring haunted dolls, an illustrated piece about human migration, and a heart-shaped booklet made with string and spray paint.

And if you’re wondering if a zinefest could be coming near you, well, fret not! New York-based artbook retailer Printed Matter maintains a massive catalog of zine fairs around the globe.

Pop quiz

Which of these is not a real zine that made it into circulation?


B. Teste Vuote Ossa Rotte (Empty Heads Broken Bones)

C. The Dragonflyer

D. I’d Start A Revolution But I Don’t Have Time

The answer is circulating at the bottom.


If we’re going to send you an email about all the zines people make, of course we’ll leave you with the tools to make one yourself. Pick your path!

💾 For the digital bells and whistlers. Electric Zine Maker is a zany web program for designing zines with pizazz. Play on!

📝 For the analog purists. If you want to Xerox your way to self-published success, consult this how-to video to turn a single sheet of paper into an eight-page zine. Get scribbling!


How will you make and market your next zine?

  • I’m nailing ideas to a doorway
  • I’m printing en masse at my local copy shop
  • I’m designing to go viral on Google Slides

Share your method — it’ll take just a second!

💬 Let’s talk!

🐤 X this!

🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?

Today’s email was written by Gabriela Riccardi (makes zines, including Quartz ones) and edited by Morgan Haefner (doesn’t make zines but loves reading them).

The correct answer is A., BLAHBLAH/BLAH. Teste Vuote Ossa Rotte, The Dragonflyer, and I’d Start A Revolution But I Don’t Have Time are all actual zines you can read online right now. (To be fair, we don’t think a zine called BLAHBLAH/BLAH has been made before. Perhaps you’ll be the first to publish it.)

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